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WORDS ON WAR — FOR KIDSDAD’S ACTIVITY BOOK OFFERS CHILDREN A NEW VIEW ON WWII

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by Joe Lugara

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War contributes more words and terms to our lexicon than any other activity. World War II alone brought D-Day, the concentration camp, Nazis and the atomic bomb to our collective consciousness, along with the previously little-known Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Although the weapons, issues, and social and political repercussions vary from conflict to conflict, the words and names connected to a given war become part of the vocabulary we use to concoct our metaphors, the surest suggestion that things haven't been the same for us since. Richard Panchyk's book, World War II for Kids (Chicago Review Press, $14.95), has an excellent glossary, from the unfamiliar British slang term "ack-ack" to the more homey "victory garden", words that reflect what the author calls the "scope and breath" of the 20th century's principal conflict. Part of the publisher's "For Kids" series, which includes Panchyk's "Archaeology for Kids" and his forthcoming "Folk Art for Kids", "World War II for Kids" offers, in addition to its on-the-nose text and photos, 21 hands-on activities to lift its subject out of the arid textbook world and into the living and breathing present. It doesn't come as much of a surprise that a man who would write about archeology would also take up such a major historical subject as the Second World War; archeology and history, after all, are cousins. But with the 1941-1945 conflict moving ever closer to the precipice of vivid human memory, there seems to be something of an urgency to get as many personal stories recorded as possible. Panchyk — whose family first came to New York in 1866, and who currently lives in Westbury, Long Island — has a degree in anthropology and has taught archeology, but describes himself as a student of history. The Second World War holds both historical and personal significance for him; his grandfathers and three of his great uncles, one of who worked in Army Intelligence, served during the conflict. "A lot of Vets came home and didn't talk about it too much," Panchyk says. "I did about 25 interviews for this book, and they almost all seemed surprised that there would be any interest at all in what they did." The presumed lack of interest failed to shock Panchyk, who, even at his relatively young age of 32, didn't encounter the subject academically until his latter years as a student. "They thought it was too recent, so they taught the Civil War," he says. "I really learned about it in college. And I found out later, as a teacher, that there were a lot of kids who didn't know when it happened or who the role players were. My purpose with the book is to teach kids about it now, before they get to college, using these first-hand accounts." To further personalize the work, Panchyk also relied on a manuscript written by one of his great uncle's commanding officers, detailing his experience as the Allies moved through France and Germany, along with photos from the family collection. But although his book covers the usual facts of combat, sneak attacks, and invasion, Panchyk also turns his attention to life on the home front, both here and abroad, through the eyes of those who were there. "When people write about World War II, they traditionally focus on Hitler, but the war was fought here, too — and everywhere, by innocent people," Panchyk says of the book's first-hand accounts, in which interviewees relate their stories about how they "did their part", either by collecting newspaper, scrap metal, and plastic, or by toeing the line when it came to activities like rationing. Others do something much tougher than eating their meals without butter or limiting their gasoline usage: survive. "The reality is, if you're writing history, you can't shy away from the tough parts," Panchyk says of his chapter on the Holocaust. Stories about near misses with the Nazis and imprisonment in concentration camps are told briefly but effectively. In one anecdote, almost universal to those who experienced the Holocaust, a child identified as Maria K. avoids the concentration camp when the nuns of a Catholic convent protect her by concealing her beneath an auditorium stage, as the sounds of Nazi boots clunk around ominously above her head. Maria K.'s anecdote is one of several that bring a new world — although a reprehensible one — to the book's young readers, while at the same time illustrating the kind of courage and fortitude sometimes engendered by war. As a former teacher of archeology, Panchyk says he was never content to just give his students the textbook. "I'd bring in maps and props and pose hypothetical questions using these things," he says. The nearly two-dozen activities in "World War II for Kids" echo his own teaching style. Some of the "home front" activities, he admits, were obvious — making a care package, growing a victory garden, or staging a radio adventure program. Others, he says, required putting himself "into a kid's mind", and are a little trickier — going on a reconnaissance mission; practicing coastal defense; a tracking game involving latitude and longitude; and an activity that involves learning basic wartime phrases in French, German and Russian. But the two most important and dramatic activities in Panchyk's book are certainly those that encourage finding a Veteran to interview, and making a Jewish star — the star project being tailored for a class, in which each half takes its turn wearing the symbol. (The group wearing the star isn't allowed to speak, or look at, the other group). The two activities complement one another perfectly; representing victim and hero, they stand as two of the three points on the triad of war, with the third — the aggressor — making its presence known as the reason for the book in the first place. As Panchyk, whose own two children have not yet even begun school, whose lives may never come into direct contact with that of a World War II veteran, encourages his young readers in his introduction: "Recent history is so fascinating because you can still touch it . . . Take advantage of these eyewitnesses to history before it is too late."

 


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